1 MAY 2011 – ABBOTTABAD, PAKISTAN – Abbottabad, Pakistan is less than a two-hour drive from the capital city of Islamabad and 3.1 miles from the Pakistan Military Academy to the southwest. In relative terms, Abbottabad is a much less busy place than Karachi, Pakistan, and is very attractive to tourists and those seeking higher education for their children. Despite Abbottabad’s relative inactivity compared to the bustling Karachi, there were signs of digital life in 2011.
Figure 1 @ReallyVirtual, AKA Sohaib Athar, a resident of Abbottabad accidentally live tweets the Navy SEAL raid on the Bin Laden Compound. All timestamps from the tweets are US Eastern Time.
Unwittingly, Sohaib Athar, or @ReallyVirtual live-tweeted the Navy SEAL raid on the compound that housed Osama bin Laden and his family 0.8 miles southwest of the Pakistan Military Academy from the hours of 3:58 pm Eastern Standard Time through 6:39 pm Eastern Standard Time on 1 May 2011.[i] This is just months after The Arab Spring protesters began utilizing social media, Facebook and Twitter in particular, to influence large swaths of populations into a movement of collective activism, operating outside of the purview of state-owned media platforms. At this point, the Internet had begun to grow at an accelerated rate with massive impacts traversing the virtual sphere into the physical world. At the time, most members of the military did not understand the implications social media had on the geopolitical stage. However, the military should understand social media as a magnifying glass into the human domain, and should integrate these computer-mediated technologies into operations.
Fast forward to today, where every major company has marketing links to “Like” its Facebook page, “Follow” it on Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, and “Subscribe” to its YouTube channel. On Twitter alone, there are an estimated 317 million monthly active users.[ii] On Facebook, that number is 1.71 billion.[iii] Each day, the number of active users on social media continues to grow and will continue to grow as more people globally have access to computers and mobile phones. For Twitter in particular, it is not a necessity to have a smartphone with an app to have a Twitter account, tweet, and read tweets. After all, Twitter started as a text-based group messaging service, which one can still access via 2G cellular means.
Just recently, Apple updated its Apple tvOS and iOS and introduced a new app simply called, “TV.” During its introduction at a press event announcing the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, they presented the TV app and its integration with a Twitter API (application program interface) so that while one watches a live event such as a football game, Presidential Debate, or a breaking news story, one can have a live Twitter stream of what people are talking about regarding that event on the side of the screen. This live integration of social media to an event was only preceded by what was previously called a “second screen experience,” meaning one had to have a separate device loaded onto it to interact live with social media. This integration of technologies makes the viewing experience a personal and real-time event between the social media user and the event. However, there could very well be military applications and purposes for this technology such as live battlefield analysis, intelligence fusion support, and social media integration.
Figure 2 Twitter Product Manager, Ryan Troy, introduces Twitter integration into Apple TV at the “Hello Again” Apple Keynote, 27OCT16 [iv]
Social media data can be fed into Big Data repositories that provide real-time insight into populace activities, thoughts, and actions. When combined with artificial intelligence, machine learning, satellite data, and intelligence feeds, social media is able to move at the speed of now, and provide a robust picture of live events and insight to where future events might lead. According to an article at DefenseOne, Orbital Insight – a company the Pentagon hired to integrate big data and geospatial intelligence company scraped OSINT (open source intelligence) to investigate the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine in July, 2014.[v] While the actual investigation by the European Union Joint Investigation Team took more than year to attribute pro-Russian separatists operating a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile (SAM), Orbital Insight saw from social media pictures of an MH17 taking off, a picture of the Russian SAM complete with serial number, date and time close to where the event occurred, a Tweet of a contrail from a missile around the time the event occurred, and a rebel leader claiming credit on VK.com. Later, a YouTube video showed the same Russian SAM with empty missile rail returning to Russia. Orbital Insight’s initial analysis and attribution for the downing of flight MH17 were done through the use of learning machine algorithms with no human interaction. The company’s use of technology is only a glimpse into future and true power of big data and social media. While impressive, it completely removes the human analyst who would and should be available to verify the findings of the AI and machine learning before presentation. The combination of big data tools, AI, and limited human-in-the-loop interaction would significantly cut down on the time to conduct investigations or intelligence analytical work, but continue to allow for both human intuition and analysis to take place, ensuring the best of both worlds to obtain the optimum answer.
Combining the power of social media with the intelligence assets available at the military’s disposal is not a novel concept. However, the fusion of intelligence when combined with a common operating picture or event-driven conversation as displayed by the new Apple TV application interface is relevant and worthy of exploration.
All imagery above is fabricated. It is a vision of a future Common Operating Picture in a JOC using Apple’s “TV” app as a basis for real-time integration of the main screen that could rapidly switch between drone footage, satellite imagery, or first-person POV live streaming video. Overlays of friendly and reported enemy positions could be automatically drawn on top of it using Soldier/crowd sourced reporting not unlike Waze. On the right-hand side is a real-time integrated feed with social media and intelligence analyst comments that would rapidly change based on the main window. If one wanted to zoom in on a certain area in the main window, the feed would change to reflect that current geographic area displayed. The battle captain interprets what is going on, directing it, and explaining it to the maneuver commander to make battlefield decisions.
Maneuver commanders and staffs on the ground would be able to watch live feeds of what’s happening on the ground, rapidly switch to a bird’s eye view from a satellite or drone feed, quickly overlay that data with the current friendly force projection, and then use social media and other cyber analytics to gain valuable insights about the current situation and the enemy in real time. The effectiveness of any common operating picture is not just the data that is displayed but rather the ability for it to be quickly understood to support decision making. Adopting and integrating technology similar to that of Apple’s tvOS software could help paint a more clear and precise picture for our warfighters. The increasing trends for employing technology, machine learning algorithms, robotics, and artificial intelligence will not slow down anytime soon. It is imperative that the military continues to analyze where in the loop humans need to be. The use of a common operating picture augmented by such technology is an example where military staffs can greatly benefit and improve situational awareness to drive the right decision.